Story of Theodore Roosevelt - J. W. McSpadden

Young Manhood

On the top of an old-fashioned stage-coach sat three boys. They were off for a jaunt to Moosehead Lake, in Maine, and as the driver cracked his whip and the coach lumbered around curves in the road, revealing glorious glimpses of hill and dale and flowing stream, the spirits of the three boys rose correspondingly.

The boys were about the same age, but two were robust and healthy, and seemed to have much in common. They laughed and jested acid finally began to poke fun at the third boy, who was stoop-shouldered, narrow-chested, and wore huge spectacles.

This boy wriggled around uncomfortably under the constant fire, and at last determined upon revenge. The stage had stopped at a wayside inn during the luncheon hour, and the passengers were stretching their muscles. Goaded into action by the other fellows, young "Owl-Eyes" peeled off his coat and dared the other boys to fight. They accepted his challenge, still in a spirit of jest, and first one, then the other tackled him. What was his amazement and disgust to discover that they were actually playing with him! Try as he might, he could not land a blow, while either of the others handled him "with easy contempt" as the poor victim afterwards described it—handling him so as not to hurt him much, but defeating him without any trouble whatever.

"Oh, let up on him!" one of the boys finally said. "The little shrimp is plucky, but can't fight!"

The little fellow, Theodore Roosevelt, left that field of battle much cast down in spirit. The defeat did him more good than tons of advice. Was he to grow up a weakling, the laughing stock of every other boy? Book-learning, he reflected, was all well enough, but if one had that and nothing more, he was "out of luck."

He had been planning to enter Harvard, and specialize in his beloved natural history and science. Now he decided to fit himself in body as well as in mind.

With his father's consent, he decided to learn how to box. He'd be ready for those fellows next time! He made the acquaintance of an old pugilist, John Long, by name, who looked him over and grunted.

"Not much to go on," he said; "but we'll try not to kill you!"

John Long's boxing quarters were adorned with pictures of famous fighters—men of beef and brawn. It must have caused the old fellow much amusement to watch the young spindle-shanks prance about and flourish the gloves. It took Theodore two or three years according to his own story to make any progress, but slowly, ever so slowly, he gained wind and muscle.

On one occasion, to stimulate interest among his patrons, John Long held a series of "championship bouts" at different weights. The prizes were medals made of pewter, and worth perhaps fifty cents. As luck would have it, Theodore was pitted in succession against two reedy striplings who were "even worse than he was." To the profound surprise of John Long, he won and became the proud possessor of the pewter medal. For years thereafter it was his joy and pride.

After entering Harvard, he kept up his boxing, both because it was benefiting his health and because it was about the only form of exercise for which he had any aptitude. Wrestling he also went in for. Once, he says, he got as far as the finals or semi-finals; but aside from this the chief part he played was to act as a sort of trial horse for his more active classmates.

Still, defeats did not daunt him now, for he felt that he was no longer a weakling. He always gave a good account of himself. They tell yet of seeing this delicate-looking fellow, with the eager look of battle in his eye, coming back again and again for punishment that would have floored a much bigger fighter. He was always game and a "good sport."

Once in the middle of a lively bout the referee called time. Theodore promptly dropped his fists and stood waiting. The other fellow struck at him and landed squarely on his nose, making it bleed profusely. Cries of "Foul!" arose, but Roosevelt ran to the referee, his nose streaming red, and called excitedly:

"Stop! Stop! He didn't hear! He didn't hear!"

Theodore was always fond of horses, but at first did not do much riding, at college. He contented himself with driving a spanking team in a light gig, as the fashion then was.

With his family's wealth and social position behind him, the young man found the doors of Boston's exclusive society thrown open to him. He joined several of the college societies and entered heartily into the life of the university. But even in those days he was not snobbish, being quite as willing to find a "good fellow" among the students with slim pocket-books, as among the well-to-do.

College proved, in some respects, a disappointment to him. He found that specializing in natural history there did not mean collecting and mounting specimens. Instead, it meant laboratory work, and painstaking dissection under the microscope. So he went in for a general course, and did much desultory reading that was not in the course at all. They say of him, that he would frequently drop into a fellow student's room on a visit, when his eye would light upon some unfamiliar book upon the table. He would promptly curl himself up in the window-seat with the book, and forget all about the outside world.

It was about this time that Theodore made two acquaintances who exerted no little influence over his after life. One was a girl named Alice Lee, of whom more later. The other was a backwoodsman, Bill Sewall.

Theodore had been tutored for college by Arthur Cutler, himself a young man of fine attainments and promise. Cutler was fond of going "down to Maine" on hunting and fishing trips, where he had met Sewall, a guide of Island Falls. He urged Theodore to go along, and Theodore was of the sort that needed little urging where the great outdoors was concerned.

Accordingly on one of his trips into the Maine wilderness, Cutler took Roosevelt, whom he afterwards left in charge of the guide. It would have been hard to find two persons of more marked physical contrast. Bill Sewall was a big, husky fellow of thirty-five or -six, towering up like one of the pine trees of his state; while Theodore Roosevelt was not much more than half his age and stature. The two eyed each other critically. They were sizing each other up.

"I want you to take good care of this young fellow," Cutler told the guide privately. "He's plucky enough, but he isn't very strong. He can't help that, you know, but the trouble is that he won't give up, even if he's tired out."

The big guide nodded without making much comment. He possibly thought, "Another tenderfoot!" But he soon found that this spectacled young man, despite his troublesome breathing, was game. They went hunting and camping together, and Roosevelt insisted upon "toting" his full share of arms and equipment. On one of their first trips Bill thoughtlessly took a wider circuit than he had planned, which resulted in a twenty-five mile hike—"a good, fair walk for any common man"—as he afterwards admitted; but Roosevelt, if he was done up, never complained.

Then and there was born a lifelong friendship between the frail city lad and the stalwart backwoodsman. Seated at the friendly campfire they exchanged confidences. Bill told Theodore about the big game and how it was hunted; while Theodore in return told Bill many interesting and surprising bits or fact about the smaller animals and birds, gleaned from his passion for natural history.

"He never could get me interested in fishing," says Roosevelt. "I was too active to be willing to sit still and wait for a bite."

But he got his first lessons in big game hunting. He learned to shoot straight, and to follow the trail. He learned the meaning of many things in the great silent woods.

"That young feller has good stuff in him," Bill Sewall confided to his nephew, Will Dow, who joined them on many expedition. "I don't know what it is, but he is 'different'—different from anybody I ever met. I wouldn't be surprised if we heard from him yet, even if he don't look like he amounted to much."

Some thirty years later, Bill Sewall acted as collector of customs on the Aroostook border. He had been appointed to this position by his old friend, Theodore Roosevelt, now President of the United States.